The bond between Rick Byrd and Casey Alexander crosses rivalry lines

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There may not be a rivalry in all of college basketball more unique than the Battle of the Boulevard, which pits Belmont against Lipscomb, two schools that are located all of 2.7 miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, TN.

It dates back to 1953, and over the course of the last 60 years, the two programs have squared off more than 130 times despite the fact that there was a seven-year hiatus in the late-’90s and early-’00s. But to get an idea of just what this rivalry means to Bruin and Bison fans, all you need to know is the story of their matchup on Feb. 17th, 1990.

At the time, Lipscomb was a powerhouse in the NAIA, winning national titles and helping Don Meyer collect 665 of his 923 career wins. In 1989, they were 38-1 heading into the league tournament when an upstart Belmont program, coached by Rick Byrd, upset the Bisons and kept them out of the NAIA national tournament. The following season, with both programs sitting in the top five of the NAIA rankings with a combined record of 27-1, Belmont was asked to move their home game to Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus because of the demand for tickets.

15,399 fans packed inside Memorial Gym. More than 16,000 tickets were sold. The fire marshall shut the doors, banning ticket holders from entering.

All for a regular season NAIA game.

That attendance number is still a record.

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Casey Alexander was at that game at Memorial Gym. He was a senior in high school, and one of his teammates was already committed to Belmont. They had a game that night, but hopped in a car immediately after the buzzer sounds — still in their uniforms — and caught the final seven minutes of the 124-107 Lipscomb win.

Alexander would eventually commit to Belmont as well. He played for four years, lettering in each season, before becoming a member of Byrd’s staff upon graduation. He became the associate head coach in 2002 and had completed a full two decades as a member of the Belmont program before taking over as head coach at Stetson prior to the 2011-2012 season.

He’s a member of the Belmont Hall of Fame, and even played a pivotal role in what ended up being the most important move as a basketball program.

“Casey played a large role in our move from the NAIA to Division I,” Byrd said by phone on Sunday afternoon, “I’ve said it often that he pulled me and pushed me into that era. We had a good thing, and I was pretty happy coaching from October to March and getting to play golf in the summer. You can’t do that as easily in Division I.”

Outside of Byrd, there is no one that is more Belmont more than Alexander.

So you can imagine the reaction on Sunday when Alexander was officially named the new head coach at Lipscomb.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “That’s the way that I feel and the way that I’m approaching this mission.”

“He contacted me very early on about the job and said he was interested,” Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director and a former all-american for the Bisons, said with a laugh. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know’ as I was thinking about his resume a little bit. I thought this’ll be interesting.”

Steve Wojciechowski played for four seasons at Duke, winning ACC titles and earning accolades like Honorable Mention All-America and National Defensive Player of the Year, before joining the Duke staff two years after graduating. Since then, he’s become the associate head coach, been on staff for two runs to the national title and emerged as a contender to replace Mike Krzyzewski if and when he finally decides to retire.

Now imagine if Wojo was named Roy Williams’ replacement as head coach at North Carolina.

For the folks around Belmont and Lipscomb, that’s the kind of surprise that this hire has elicited.

“[They] were very similar players,” Byrd said. “Casey was an NAIA player, he couldn’t have done at Duke what Wojciechowski did, but their roles as leaders and tough little guards were very, very similar.”

“I’m sure Casey was pretty easy to dislike from the Lipscomb point of view.”

What would college-aged Casey have said had you told him he’d be coaching Lipscomb in 2013?

“I think he would have been as much in shock as most people were when they heard he’s going to be now. It’s just unusual,” Byrd said with a laugh.

And that’s what makes this rivalry so unique. Lipscomb may have hesitated in hiring Alexander — their coaching search went on for 40 days — but they ended up bringing in a guy that was probably the best fit for their program.

It’s inarguable that the Bruins have overshadowed the Bisons in recent years. They’ve been to six NCAA tournaments in the past eight seasons. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in five of their last seven years in the league (finishing second the other two) before getting an invitation to the stronger Ohio Valley Conference prior to last season. The Bruins won the OVC last year as well.

Lipscomb? Well, they made the 2006 NIT and lost in the first round.

No one knows the ins-and-outs of Belmont’s blueprint for success like Alexander. In a city where sports are secondary to music and food, college basketball isn’t the most important sport, and there are already two nationally relevant college hoops teams, a mid-major program like Lipscomb needs to think outside the box when making a hire.

That’s precisely what they did.

If you can’t beat ’em and you can’t join ’em, you might as well try to replicate ’em. And in all actuality, the similarity between the two programs is one of the things that attracted Alexander to the job.

“The truth is all that I liked about Belmont is the reason that I wanted to be at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “They’re very similar. I think we can do the same things. I think I can be myself, I can coach the way that I want and I can coach the kind of people that I want. There aren’t that many places that are like that. It’s a pretty unique environment and it’s the one that I wanted to be in.”

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When Alexander stepped to the podium at his introductory press conference, the first people he recognized and thanked were his family. His wife, his kids, his parents, his in-laws. Everyone. And after thanking his new bosses and recognizing those that gave him this opportunity, Alexander proceeded to thank the man that set him on this career path.

“Outside of those that share [my DNA], there’s not one person anywhere that’s made me more the man I am today than Rick Byrd,” Alexander said, while choking up. Byrd crossed enemy lines to attend and support his former player and assistant coach. There are few coaches in the country that are as universally respected as Byrd is, and one of the reasons for that is his unconditional support for former members of the program. It doesn’t matter why someone wants to leave or where they want to go, Byrd is going to help them follow through.

Even if it means watching one of his protégés take over his program’s biggest rival.

“When I first started talking to him about this job,” Alexander said, “you can imagine it was probably like a lot of you, a lot of raised eyebrows and so forth. But it took one conversation, literally, for him to forget where it was and who it was. Because all he cares about is what’s best for the people that he has worked with.”

The way Alexander tells it, playing Belmont as the coach at Lipscomb will be easier for him than playing Belmont during his first season at Stetson. It was the first basketball season since he was in high school that he wasn’t a member of the Bruins in one form or another, and he had literally recruited every player on the Bruin team.

It’s a tough sell, however; Alexander’s very first game on the Lipscomb sideline will come against Belmont.

For Byrd, having Alexander on the opposite bench will actually make the rivalry more tolerable.

“People that know me know that I haven’t really enjoyed the rivalry,” Byrd said. “It’s hard to enjoy it because it means so much to people on our side and their side.”

“But I really think with Casey there it’s almost going to be easier for me. I like to compete and coach against guys that I think have the kind of class that Casey has. Those are the people I respect. I don’t like to lose to anybody, but I’d much rather lose to folks that I think are going about it in a proper way.”

Byrd can be confident that Alexander will be one of those people.

That’s what he spent 20 years teaching Alexander to do.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Washington lands four-star forward Hameir Wright

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Washington and new head coach Mike Hopkins snagged another talented piece on Saturday as four-star forward Hameir Wright committed to the Huskies.

The reigning New York State Gatorade Player of the Year, Wright had was originally supposed to be a member of the Class of 2018, but he will skip his scheduled season at Brewster Academy to join Washington for the 2017-18 season.

The 6-foot-7 Wright was being pursued by a solid list of high-major programs this summer as Washington was able to land another talented player from upstate New York for next season. Wright joins wing Naz Carter, the nephew of Jay Z, as recent commits who can come in and play next season for the Huskies.

Hopkins has used his former connections as a Syracuse assistant to get his roster two immediate pieces that could be four-year players. It’s a really positive start for the first-year head coach as he has a lot of holes to fill on the Washington roster.

VIDEO: Luke Maye continues hitting big shots this summer for North Carolina

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Luke Maye became a local hero during North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA tournament run after making the game-winning jumper to get past Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Maye has received standing ovations in class, he’s been recognized at baseball games and he’s become a celebrity since returning to Chapel Hill.

The legend of Maye will continue to grow after the junior forward knocked down another game-winning jumper against former North Carolina players during the summer Roy Williams Basketball Camp.

With a sizable camp crowd watching, Maye knocked down a top-of-the-key three last week to get the win. Theo Pinson knows the shot is good right after it leaves Maye’s hands and watching his reaction might be my favorite part of this.

North Carolina is hoping that Maye’s confidence and shooting carries into next season since they’ll need him to play a much larger part with the departures of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley.

(H/t: Jeremy Harson)

Clemson lands three-star Class of 2018 guard John Newman

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Clemson was able to land a commitment from three-star Class of 2018 shooting guard John Newman on Friday night.

The 6-foot-4 Newman selected the Tigers over his other finalists that included Providence, Virginia and Wake Forest. Newman is coming off of a solid spring with Team CP3 in the Nike EYBL and he also had a good showing at the NBPA Top 100 Camp last week at the University of Virginia.

An aggressive perimeter threat who can score or distribute, Newman can not only put up points in bunches but he’s also pretty efficient in terms of his shooting splits.

Newman put up 11.5 points per game at Top 100 Camp on 55 percent shooting and 53 percent three-point shooting as he looked like one of the more confident scorers in the camp.

The first commitment for Clemson in the Class of 2018, Newman is an important start for what could be a very big recruiting class for the Tigers.

Notre Dame gets commitment from four-star guard

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Mike Brey’s 2018 recruiting class just got stronger Thursday.

Notre Dame added its second four-star prospect, Robby Carmody, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pennsylvania.

“The recruiting process has been a humbling and exciting experience!” Carmody wrote on social media. “My sincerest appreciation goes out to all the coaches and schools that invested time getting to know me throughout the process.

“Today I am blessed and excited to announce that I am committing to the University of Notre Dame!”

Carmody, who just recently visited the Fighting Irish and Purdue,  joins Prentiss Hubb as the first two pieces of Brey’s 2018 class. Hubb is a 6-foot-2 guard from Washington, DC and a top-75 ranked player nationally.

The Irish will need some major pieces in 2018 after losing the likes of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to graduation after this upcoming season. Notre Dame has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three seasons, making two Elite Eights during that time.

2018 NBA Mock Draft: It’s never too early …

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With the 2017 NBA Draft coming to a close, it’s time to take a look at the 2018 NBA Draft and some of the best, most influential potential pros in the sport next season. 

Here is a first round mock draft for 2018. In a year, we can look back on this and realize just how naive we all were.

Scott Phillips contributed to this story.

1. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri, Fr.: The 6-foot-9 former Washington signee is a lethal scorer that plays on the perimeter and has a chance to be a National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick. He’s got the size and athleticism to overwhelm smaller defenders and the quicks to light up college fours, Porter is also a strong rebounder who is tougher than some give him credit for.

The big question for Porter next season isn’t about him, it will be how good that Tigers team is around him. New head coach Cuonzo Martin inherited a mediocre-at-best roster, but he’s added some talented — but very young — pieces. If Porter Jr.’s younger brother, Jontay, also reclassifies to this year, Missouri might even be a sleeper NCAA tournament team.

     RELATED: It’s All In The Family for the Porters

But even if Porter and Missouri misses the Big Dance, as expected, it shouldn’t have any kind of major bearing on his draft stock as long as he is productive. Both Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz went No. 1 in the draft after missing the NCAA tournament.

Michael Porter, Jr. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
2. Deandre Ayton, Arizona, Fr.: Not many 7-footers move as well as Ayton, and it was part of the reason he was once considered the No. 1 prospect in this class. As a sophomore in high school, Ayton once gave future Final Four team North Carolina a double-double in an exhibition game in his native Bahamas.

With an ability to run the floor like a guard while being quick enough to switch onto some perimeter players, Ayton is a rare athlete at center who also has some intriguing offensive capabilities: He has a good touch from the free-throw line and mid-range and some fluidity on the perimeter.

But the big question is his motor. There are times when Ayton disappears for stretches of games, and then there are the stretches where he absolutely dominates everyone. It’ll be fascinating to see which Ayton we see every game at Arizona. If he’s engaged all year he has a chance to be a No. 1 pick.

3. Miles Bridges, Michigan State, So.: Bridges will test whether or not returning to school when you are a projected lottery pick is the dumbest thing that an athlete can do. Anyone that watched Michigan State play last season knows how good this guy is. He’s a 6-foot-7 combo-forward that jumps through the roof and can be a multi-positional defender. In a league that prioritizes positionless basketball and values the ability to defend the rim and space the floor, Bridges shot 39 percent from three and averaged 1.5 blocks.

The big question for him next season is going to be his transition to being a full-time perimeter player. Bridges spent much of his freshman campaign playing a small-ball four role for the Spartans. But with Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward on the floor at the same time, he’s going to be a small forward through and through. Is he skilled enough for that role, or will he be “exposed”?

4. Luka Doncic, Real Madrid: The random Euro dude you’ve never heard of. He’s 6-foot-8. He’s a shooting guard that knocked down 37 percent of his threes. He’s from Slovenia. His dad’s named Sasa. When my son was born I used my one name veto on ‘Luka’. Draft Express thinks he’s going No. 1 overall. I’ll slot him in at No. 4 because his neckbeard hasn’t fully grown in yet.

5. Robert Williams, Texas A&M, So.: Here’s to hoping that Williams made the right decision. A 6-foot-9 center with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and freakish athleticism that averaged 11.9 points, 8.2 boards and 2.6 blocks as a freshman, Williams made the decision to return to College Station for his sophomore season when he had the chance to be a first round pick — potentially a lottery pick — in the 2017 NBA Draft. That’s a serious risk, one that Cal center Ivan Rabb learned was not the best decision when he went from being a projected lottery pick to the No. 35 pick by returning for his sophomore campaign. The Aggies should be really good next season, and that will help, as will the fact that there is actually a point guard on the roster. But striking while the iron is hot is the key for potential lottery picks when it comes to cashing in on those guaranteed contracts.

6. Mohamed Bamba, Texas, Fr.: Gifted with an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan, the 7-foot-1 Bamba has the chance to be one of the best defensive players in the nation this season. Not only can Bamba wall up at the rim and defend with his ridiculous standing reach, but he’s also quick enough to switch and defend wings on the perimeter and stick with them. Rebounding also comes naturally to Bamba because his length enables him to snare rebounds well above rim level.

Offense is going to be the major question mark with Bamba. While Bamba has been able to finish over smaller defenders near the basket, he’s a very skinny 210 pounds and he doesn’t possess a lot of polish. Even if Bamba’s offensive game doesn’t show a lot this season, he has the kind of rare athleticism and tools that could make him a top three pick.

7. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State, Fr.: Late-blooming big man Jaren Jackson Jr. has a chance to be a rare Big Ten one-and-done player. The 6-foot-10 Jackson just helped La Lumiere to a national championship at the high school level last season as he’ll be a major piece for the Spartans this season.

Not only can Jackson produce at a potential double-double level but he’s also a gifted three-point shooter who is effective in the pick-and-pop game. Young for his class, Jackson’s body and skill level are still developing, but he showed signs of being a dominant sidekick for Miles Bridges.

Wendell Carter, Jon Lopez/Nike
8. Wendell Carter, Duke, Fr.: The 6-foot-10 Carter should be much more of an impact than Harry Giles III or Marques Bolden this season as he’s a developed scorer who can play with his back to the basket or facing up. With a surprising amount of touch and perimeter skill for a 260-pound big man, Carter is the type of force who could attract double teams while opening things up for guys like Grayson Allen.

And Carter is no slouch athletically, either. Although he’s not a freak like Ayton or Bamba, Carter is a very good athlete who can rebound in traffic and protect the rim as well. It would come as no surprise if Carter was actually the most effective big man of this list at the college level this season as he should have a very balanced roster around him.

9. Bruce Brown, Miami, So.: I’m all-in on Miami as a national title contender this season, and one of the biggest reasons why is Bruce Brown. He’s a 6-foot-5 combo-guard with long arms and a physical frame, he shoots it well from three and can operate in pick-and-rolls and has a competitive fire about him that cannot be taught. I think there’s a chance that he ends up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, and if Jim Larrañaga can work his point guard magic with him, he’ll be a top ten pick in June.

10. Troy Brown, Oregon, Fr.: Brown is something of a swiss army knife in the sense that he can do a little bit of everything. He scores, he passes, he hits the glass and he does all this as a 6-foot-6 wing with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He’ll also be playing for a team that will showcase his versatility in Oregon. On paper, he looks like a guy that should fit the positionless mold of the modern NBA quite well. Having said that, he’s not a great athlete and he’s not a great shooter, which takes some of the luster off of the idea that he can guard multipositions and spread the floor.

11. Chimezie Metu, USC, Jr.: Metu is an interesting, still-developing prospect. He’s got the physical tools to project as an NBA front court player as well as an improving offensive repertoire. The key for him is going to be seeing where he takes a step forward this offseason. He has a decent base of perimeter skills — he makes midrange jumpers and shoots 75 percent from the foul line — but ultimately he needs to extend that range and showcase more toughness in the paint, on the glass and protecting the rim.

Collin Sexton, Jon Lopez/Nike
12. Collin Sexton, Alabama, Fr.: One of the best scorers at 6-foot-1 in recent memory, Sexton led the EYBL, Nike’s AAU circuit, in scoring last spring by a full eight points, nearly 30 points per game. Sexton is undersized and incredibly intense bordering on insane, which means that he’ll a fun player to watch and one that could become very popular with fans this season. The MVP of USA Basketball’s gold-medal winning U17 World Championship team last summer, Sexton has a big-game mentality as he’s one of the most competitive players in the class.

     RELATED: How Collin Sexton made himself a five-star

Perimeter shooting was is the shaky part of Sexton’s scoring game. He has improved it steadily over time, but that’s something he’s going to need to develop if he’s going to be a lottery pick as many project him to be.

13. Lonnie Walker, Miami, Fr.: Another one of the reasons I think that Miami is going to be awesome this season. Walker is a big, long and strong shooting guard than can play with the ball in his hands. He made 40 percent of his threes on the Nike EYBL circuit and he has the tools to be a big time defensive menace. He’s one of my favorite guards in the Class of 2017.

14. Trevon Duval, Duke, Fr.: A freakish athlete at point guard who can play well above the rim, the 6-foot-2 Duval will help stabilize the point guard position for Duke this season. Working in a reliable jump shot is going to be the big thing to watch for Duval this season. The way the point guard spot is trending, he’ll need to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers — something that hasn’t always been reliable. There are also times that Duval can play too fast as he can be reckless with turnovers and taking tough shots. But if Duval corrects those workable mistakes, then he has a chance to get Duke to another Final Four because they have plenty of offensive weapons.

  • 15. De’Anthony Melton, USC, So.
  • 16. Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 17. Mitchell Robinson, Western Kentucky, Fr.
  • 18. Justin Jackson, Maryland, So.
  • 19. Grayson Allen, Duke, Sr.
  • 20. Devonte’ Graham, Kansas, Sr.
  • 21. Kevin Knox, Kentucky, Fr.
  • 22. Shake Milton, SMU, Jr.
  • 23. V.J. King, Louisville, So.
  • 24. Killian Tillie, Gonzaga, So.
  • 25. Quenton Rose, Temple, So.
  • 26. Vince Edwards, Purdue, Sr.
  • 27. Allonzo Trier, Arizona, Jr.
  • 28. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, Jr.
  • 29. Marques Bolden, Duke, So.
  • 30. Aaron Holiday, UCLA, Jr.